correction: An earlier version of this column said Democrats need to pick up three seats to regain the Senate. They need two. This version has been updated.
One of the brightest hopes for Democrats this year is a Senate candidate who almost never mentions that he is one of them.
“My being a Democrat is an incidental fact, not the sort of primary identification I have,” Phil Bredesen told me when I pointed that out in an interview.
That — along with some turmoil on the other side of the ballot — has helped to give the 74-year-old former governor a shot at winning a seat that was not on the national radar until he announced in December that he was coming out of retirement to run for it.
Tennessee is so red that it has not voted for a Democrat statewide since 2006. As it happens, that Democrat was Bredesen himself, who picked up every single one of its 95 counties in his bid for reelection.
While much of the rest of the country is gearing up for an epic midterm battle between the hardened forces of Trumpism and the resistance, Tennessee is testing whether persuasion is still possible in politics. The theory is that the right kind of candidate can persuade voters, particularly the growing share of Tennesseans who identify as independents, to see beyond party labels.
Southeastern Tennessee’s GOP roots go back to the Civil War. But Bredesen got a warm reception at a brown-bag lunch Tuesday with a handful of small-town officials in a recreation center here.
“I’m a Republican, and I voted for you every time you ran,” said James Cook, the vice mayor of Graysville, population 1,500.
Bredesen rarely brings up President Trump. He does not argue that it is urgent for Democrats to take back control of the Senate.
Instead, he laments hyperpartisanship that “predates the current president” and talks of finding kindred spirits in the Senate to form bipartisan coalitions willing to make compromises that can “move things forward.”
As an example of the kind of senator he would like to be, he cites a Republican, Sen. John McCain of Arizona. Bredesen says he would probably have voted against the recent tax cut, primarily because it added to the deficit. On guns, he has called for tighter background checks since the Feb. 14 massacre at a high school in Parkland, Fla., but not a ban on the kind of assault-style weapon the suspect used.
Early polls suggest a tight race against the likely Republican nominee, Rep. Marsha Blackburn, who in her announcement for the job said: “I know the left calls me a wing nut or a knuckle-dragging conservative. And you know what? I say that’s all right. Bring it on.”
A better indicator of the panic that Bredesen is setting off among Republicans is the fact that Bob Corker, who currently holds the Senate seat, is reconsidering his decision to retire. Another GOP candidate, former U.S. representative Stephen Fincher, dropped out of the race, saying he hoped Corker would run to save the seat.
Yet Blackburn has the support of leading outside groups, including the Club for Growth and the Koch brothers’ network. And it is far from clear that Corker could win a Republican primary, given his many criticisms of Trump, whose White House the senator memorably called “an adult day-care center.” Though Trump’s approval has slipped, he remains broadly popular among Republicans here.
Beyond the potential for a brutal primary, some Republicans also worry privately that their party in Tennessee has become, as Trump might put it, tired of winning. Their ground organization has lost some of its edge for lack of competition and might not be a match for those who helped elect Democratic mayors in Memphis, Nashville, Knoxville and Chattanooga.
Wherever Bredesen goes, he notes what he accomplished as governor, including bringing Volkswagen to Chattanooga and Wacker Chemie, a German chemical manufacturer, to Bradley County. He also steered the state through a budget crisis, making the wrenching decision to kick nearly 200,000 residents off the rolls of TennCare, its Medicaid system.
But recent history suggests that voters have short memories in that regard. Democrats have tried running former governors for Senate three times in the past half-dozen years. All of them — Nebraska’s Bob Kerrey in 2012, Evan Bayh in Indiana in 2016 and Ohio’s Ted Strickland in 2016 — lost big.
Nationally, this should be a good year for Democrats, as they take on a historically unpopular president. Their liberal base could hardly be more revved up. But to pick up the two seats they need to regain the Senate, they will have to win in a state or two such as this one, where being in their column on the ballot remains a liability.
“I’m not into suicide missions,” Bredesen said. “It’s hardly a slam dunk. It is obviously a very, very red state at the moment. But I think the combination of people getting tired of this inaction and my specific brand, if you will, of just how I conducted myself as governor, is a workable combination.”
And that’s not a bad place to start for an “incidental” Democrat looking to show his party how to win again.